Belgium on My Mind

March 26, 2016–The ISIS/ISIL terrorism story is moving quickly in the wake of this past week’s bombings in Brussels. I haven’t the time to write much but here are two quick points:

A lot is being made of supposed gaps in Belgian security, failure to prod the Abdeslam character on his knowledge of future attacks as if that were an intelligence failure. The truth is we’re talking apples and oranges. Police apprehended Abdeslam and the Belgians and French are building a criminal case against him. By definition that is a police matter. The nature of police work is that it is backward-looking, and oriented to legal action. Intelligence attempts to peer into the future. This is not an intelligence failure, it is an inevitable consequence of the orientations of different kinds of activity. I bet you Abdeslam, if only to brag, said something about the Paris attacks. Had he been shaken down first from the intelligence perspective, he would have clammed up (as he did in the event), and the Belgians would have gotten nothing out of him on any matter.

Also important is that Belgian intelligence and police action has evolved past the point where Abdeslam’s knowledge or lack of it is relevant. They have leads on other suspects, have already taken down different elements of the terrorist network, and are moving on from there.

Second point. Today’s speculation is about threats to Belgian nuclear plants. Some of the writing is breathless, as if a bunch of terrorists can waltz into a nuclear plant, extract a pile of uranium, and explode an atomic bomb. That’s highly unlikely. Apart from the fact that nuclear plants tend to have good security, the fact is that nuclear fuel elements are set into the reactors or held under a highly regimented (and secure) regime to protect from radiation leakage. Extracting fuel would require expert knowledge. Making nuclear fuel into a bomb would also require specialized knowledge. And equipment.

It’s not clear that an atomic bomb is attainable as a practical matter. A “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material is used in a bomb in the same fashion as nails or shrapnel, is the more likely possibility. Either way, the radioactive material broadcasts its own energy signature so our terrorist would be in a race with security services looking for that giveaway.

The most likely scenario–if any of this should be regarded as at all probable–is an action designed to cripple a nuclear reactor in place, in effect, to trigger a Chernobyl or Fukushima. While an event such as that is certainly highly dangerous and would inflict grave damage, it is also within the range of failure modes which authorities have long considered possible, and presumably for which they have prepared contingency plans. I recognize this is a wish and a prayer, and that like many contingency plans, everything may go wrong when the moment for implementation comes, but this is a whole lot less dangerous than the specter of an atomic bomb exploding in a major city. Let’s try and keep some perspective here.

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Brussels

March 23, 2016–Once again events cry out for people the world over to stand in unity with a nation afflicted by a damaging terrorist attack. This time the locale was Brussels and the target transportation, specifically the airport and the Brussels metro. At this writing, casualties from the atrocious attacks stand at more than 31 dead and 300 injured, but that is sure to increase. I wanted to post something yesterday, in the moment, but I happened to be out of pocket and without access.

In America’s heartland for a speaking engagement, then at the airport for the plane home, and here at a bar awaiting an evening reception, there was unusual opportunity to observe–not only the horrifying events but the operation of the 24/7 news cycle, particularly television broadcasters. I don’t think it was pretty.

The TV people have a certain number of correspondents stationed in key places, and some others who focus on particular subjects. Broadcast news functions by pulling these people into the action while meanwhile surging other reporters into the area. Big Name moderators of shows also go to the scene–or not, as in this case, where a number of Big Names were in Cuba for President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana, and found themselves broadcasting full time coverage of Brussels from a Caribbean island. To supplement the Big Names and the reporters, news stations bring in commentators–who often have knowledge of the general subject, but lack any specific information beyond what the journalists themselves possess.

An important preliminary point is that the reporters, like all the public, are dependent on information handed out by authorities. The Belgian police and civil officials quite early put a lid on news releases. Subsequently they even asked media to refrain from reporting details that might reveal where authorities were focusing their investigation. Add to that the five-hour time difference between Brussels and even the United States east coast and the fact situation was this: incidents that occurred during pre-dawn hours U.S. time were under a news embargo at a moment U.S. broadcasters were filling the air with Brussels.

What resulted was an extravaganza of repetition and an exhaustion of insight, plus a premature rush to judgment that is almost certainly wrong. Much too frequently the reporters were “interviewing” each other, journalists barely arrived on-scene were described as assiduously “working their sources” when most likely they had none to speak of, and commentators were retailing draconian measures, egged on by Big Names, without any consideration of the practical.

With time to fill and drama to create, for example, multiple broadcasters repeatedly cited the contents of an Islamist safehouse raided last week as evidence of a far reaching plan for new attacks on top of the ones in Paris on November 13, 2015. What was this deadly arsenal? One AK-47, a certain amount of a type of plastique common in suicide vests, some detonators, and an ISIS flag. Someone in this apartment could have fashioned a bomb, but they had yet to stockpile the munitions for a war–and there were hardly the weapons to defend against an assault they had to know would come with overwhelming deadly force.

The lone survivor of the Islamists who carried out the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, escaped when this apartment was raided, and phoned ahead to warn comrades. As it happened he phoned someone the Belgian police were already watching, immediately putting himself back on the grid for authorities. His capture followed.

At that point others in the network were on notice that time had run out. The Paris attacker would be interrogated. He might blab, but that almost didn’t matter–modern forensics, applied to the first apartment, as well as to the one where Abdeslam was captured, and to the computers and phones found there, and on the persons of each subsequent suspect, would inevitably lead to the files, addresses, and indications of network members. Each one captured would provide a jumping-off position to reach for another.

The scenario that makes the most sense for what happened in Brussels is: remnants of a network, understanding they are about to be run down, lash out to inflict the maximum of damage they can manage before their chances for martyrdom are taken away from them. The actual targeting of the Brussels bombs is consonant with that scenario–militants attacked the airport, and their chieftain, who had accompanied them as insurance, left on the subway, dropping a bomb as he got away. The hour that passed between the different bombings is also consistent with travel from the airport to the city center. This was most likely an act of desperation.

Broadcast news has it that a long-planned terrorist “offensive” was accelerated due to the Abdeslam capture, and that the militants struck targets off their list. There is am element of revenge against the authorities for the take-down of a terrorist leader. The implication is opposite to the scenario described above–here we watch the unleashing of an extended bombing campaign.

Time will tell which of these visions is accurate. But what broadcasters said yesterday was all too reminiscent of September 11, 2001, when television went on and on about a terrorist offensive when what had occurred was a carefully prepared one-off operation. The television yapping does the public a disservice, adding to hysterical tendencies, and inviting the sorts of intelligence and security surveillance that saps liberty and ends democracy. When that happens the terrorists will have won after all.